Paraguay’s Political Machine Triumphs Again

Welcome back to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Paraguay’s ruling Colorado Party secures an election victory, Brazil debates how to regulate big tech, and why you’ll soon find a new Gabriel García Márquez novel at a bookstore near you.

Ahead of Paraguay’s presidential election last Sunday, several factors—including rising anti-incumbent, anti-corruption, and pro-China sentiments in the country—suggested the opposition could score a rare victory. The incumbent conservative Colorado Party had governed the country for 71 of the past 76 years, and President Mario Abdo Benítez—barred from running for reelection due to term limits—was deeply unpopular. Presidential approval polls are rare in Paraguay, but last June, pollster CELAG calculated that he had a mere 12 percent approval rating.

Both Abdo Benítez’s vice president and former President Horacio Cartes, meanwhile, had been sanctioned by the U.S. government for involvement in “rampant corruption.” And powerful agribusiness groups praised centrist opposition candidate Efraín Alegre’s proposal to switch Paraguay’s diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China to boost exports—a move the Colorado Party strongly opposed.

A third candidate also experienced a boom in popularity late in the campaign: ex-lawmaker Paraguayo Cubas, who styled himself as an anti-system outsider and earned comparisons to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for his brash political rants. Cubas said as recently as last year that he had ideological affinities with the Colorado Party, but in this election he ran under the banner of his new National Crusade Party. He grew from being a relative fringe figure just months ago to earn a whopping 23 percent of votes on election day.

Yet, despite all of this, Colorado Party candidate Santiago Peña still managed to win handily, earning 43 percent of the popular vote to Alegre’s 27 percent and Cubas’s 23 percent. (Unlike many other countries in the region, a plurality is enough to guarantee an electoral victory in Paraguay.)

Peña comes from a different internal faction of the Colorado Party than Abdo Benítez and was thus able to campaign on offering fresh leadership, playing up his technocratic background as an economist at the International Monetary Fund. At the same time, he benefited from old-school machine politics and the allegiance of lower-level Colorado Party operators influential in communities across the country. Peña told the BBC that he believes opposition to U.S. sanctions on big names in the Colorado Party united his base.

Cubas’s rise may have also contributed to Peña’s victory by splitting the opposition vote. Indeed, the Colorado Party appeared to suggest as much: Cubas “grew because we wanted him to,” Colorado Party political organizer Eduardo González told La Política Online.

The election results were pronounced clean by international observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS). Even so, Alegre, Cubas, and fourth-place candidate Euclides Acevedo quickly contested the results. Protesting Cubas supporters violently clashed with police in the capitol of Asunción on Monday and Tuesday; by Thursday, 100 people had been detained, and the protests had died down.

Peña gave a series of interviews soon after his victory. He said he “totally discarded” the possibility of severing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, as Alegre had advocated. On the approaching renegotiation of the Itaipu profit-sharing treaty with Brazil, which expires in August, Peña suggested he would not strive for a radical increase in Paraguay’s share, telling La Política Online that “if Paraguay had not signed [the treaty], today it would be a village.” Similarly, he said he would not rock the boat in the South American customs union Mercosur, unlike errant member Uruguay.

Paraguay’s election ends a streak of 16 free Latin American presidential elections over the past five years that threw the incumbent party out of power. But it still reflects some broader regional trends. One is the growing appeal—and spoiling powerof anti-system politicians. Ahead of Argentina’s October presidential election, the fringe “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei has steadily risen in the polls.

Another trend is leaders’ push to reestablish ties with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Abdo Benítez suspended Paraguay’s relations with Venezuela in 2019, citing democratic backsliding, but Peña vowed to reinstate them. He said he would press for change in Venezuela through engagement and called for free elections in the country.

Paraguay’s election also carried clues about the future—including how artificial intelligence may be used during campaigns. Plans for a televised presidential debate between candidates were canceled because Peña demanded that the top four—rather than the top two—candidates be included. So a Paraguayan communications firm instead used AI to generate a mock debate based on Peña’s and Alegre’s public statements. It created doll-like video avatars of both candidates and broadcast their simulated debate online.

The OAS election observation mission made note of the video in their official report. OAS chief election observer Gerardo de Icaza told Foreign Policy that it was the first such AI debate the OAS was aware of in the region. He said that while it was not possible to scientifically measure the reach of the video and that it did not appear to be widely shared, “it is relevant because, just like social media, it can be a disruptor in electoral contests in many ways.”

Friday, May 5, to Saturday, May 6: Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva visits the United Kingdom for the coronation of King Charles III.

Thursday, May 11: A U.S. policy allowing for the rapid expulsion to Mexico of unauthorized migrants who cross the southern border, known as Title 42, is due to expire.

Saturday, May 13, to Sunday, May 14: Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is set to attend a right-wing summit in Portugal.

After Title 42. New U.S. migration agreements reported in recent days show how Washington hopes to adjust its asylum system after a pandemic-era policy expires on May 11.

Title 42, first imposed under the Trump administration, gave U.S. authorities permission to rapidly expel any unauthorized migrant who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, even those attempting to seek asylum, under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Critics argued the rule violated U.S. and international law as well as human rights by improperly using health grounds to undermine the legal right to asylum. Though the Biden administration initially tried to lift the measure, only to be blocked by the courts, the administration then effectively expanded it. Biden officials maintained that other countries needed to do more to protect asylum-seekers and vowed to work toward a “regional approach” to irregular migration. Now, though, the measure is set to officially end with the expiration of the COVID-19 public health emergency next week.

To prepare for the expected increase in asylum-seekers that will result, U.S. officials announced last Thursday that they are working with Guatemala and Colombia to create migrant processing centers in both of those countries that will screen northbound asylum-seekers so that they apply for protection before they reach the southern U.S. border. Washington is also considering a new policy that would make these migrants ineligible to apply for asylum on U.S. soil. Spain and Canada agreed to accept some referrals from the processing centers, Politico reported.

“[T]here’s a lot of good international and diplomatic work here,” Theresa Cardinal Brown, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s senior immigration advisor, tweeted after the new migrant processing centers were announced. “But these are not likely to be fully staffed up and running by May 11.”

Beijing-Caracas ties. China has been holding low-profile talks with Venezuela’s Maduro government about restructuring Venezuela’s outstanding debt to the country, Bloomberg reported. After lending an estimated $60 billion to Venezuela between 2007 and 2015 in exchange for repayments that were partially due in oil, Beijing scaled back its ties with Caracas in recent years as Venezuela struggled through a major economic collapse and diplomatic isolation.

Now that Latin American countries—and even the United States and Europe—are increasing their engagement with the Maduro government, China has moved to do the same. Envoys discussed cooperation deals in oil and telecommunications, Bloomberg reported.

Gonzalo García, son of the late Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, is seen next to his father’s portrait at the Gabriel García Márquez House of Literature in Mexico City on June 15, 2022.

Gonzalo García, son of the late Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, is seen next to his father’s portrait at the Gabriel García Márquez House of Literature in Mexico City on June 15, 2022.

Gonzalo García, son of the late Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, is seen next to his father’s portrait at the Gabriel García Márquez House of Literature in Mexico City on June 15, 2022.Claudio Cruz/AFP via Getty Images

New García Márquez novel. A previously unpublished manuscript that had been sitting in the personal archive of late Colombian literary giant Gabriel García Márquez will be published next year by Penguin Random House, the publisher said. The book is titled We’ll See Each Other in August and tells the story of a middle-aged woman’s romance while visiting a tropical island.

García Márquez’s family has long had access to the manuscript and for many years opted against publishing it. His editor said García Márquez was still unconvinced that he had reached a satisfactory version of the novel by the time of his death. But his two sons eventually decided there should be “nothing to prevent us from enjoying” the book, which they said shows their father’s “capacity for invention, the poetry of language” and “his affection for his experiences and misfortunes, especially in love.”

Which of the following is not a Gabriel García Márquez book?

“Ode to My Socks” is a poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

A smartphone screen displays the phrase “Fake News” in front of a computer screen showing several news and research reports about fake news and disinformation related to 2022 Brazilian presidential election in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 29, 2022.

A smartphone screen displays the phrase “Fake News” in front of a computer screen showing several news and research reports about fake news and disinformation related to 2022 Brazilian presidential election in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 29, 2022.

A smartphone screen displays the phrase “Fake News” in front of a computer screen showing several news and research reports about fake news and disinformation related to 2022 Brazilian presidential election in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 29, 2022. Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Tech giant Google repositioned search results and sent emails to YouTube users in an effort to block a bill in Brazil’s Congress that aims to prevent the spread of deliberately false or misleading information online, according to reporting by Folha de São Paulo and a study by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Google denied manipulating its search results, but Brazil’s justice minister requested antitrust regulators probe potential abusive practices by the company.

The bill was backed by Brazil’s new Lula administration and would have required tech companies to present regular reports about their content moderation activities and the risk of disinformation or face heavy fines for poor compliance. (Brazilian authorities have on past occasions ordered tech companies to take down information deemed deliberately false, but the onus for detecting it currently lies with the government.) The bill would also obligate tech companies to pay news organizations for articles that the tech companies share on their platforms.

Lawmakers’ support for the bill had grown in recent months after social media platforms were used to spread false allegations of fraud in Brazil’s 2022 election and coordinate the Jan. 8 attack on Brasília, as well as in the wake of a string of violent attacks on Brazilian elementary schools that some analysts said were inspired on the internet.

Supporters of the bill believed it had a good chance of passing as recently as early April. But since then, Google has promoted links in its search results to articles that claimed without evidence that the proposed law would slow down users’ internet connections. The articles also characterized the bill as censorship, and evangelical Christian lawmakers began campaigning against the bill, saying it would block them from being able to express their religion.

Lawmakers eventually postponed a vote on the bill that was originally scheduled for Tuesday amid uncertainty over its passage. In the meantime, the debate on how to curb social media disinformation continues to course through Brasília.

Some supporters of regulation said the delay in the bill’s passage was not necessarily a bad thing, given that controversial provisions had been added in recent days that would have protected sitting lawmakers from facing consequences for their online speech. The bill “needs to be debated more. Much more,” tweeted Cristina Tardáguila, the founder of the fact-checking site Lupa. But supporters of regulation are girding themselves for tech firms to push back with increasing aggression.

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